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Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

What kind of Earth Day is this, 2022? We are surrounded by ideas about how we can make the shift away from fossil fuels … only to be thwarted by those who ignore the evidence, no matter how compelling.

The latest science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could not be more clear or emphatic: “The world is not on track to meet the global rise in temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

Not on track? We are failing because even now – as the evidence continues to mount – there is an organized continued resistance to making dramatic shifts in energy policy.

Or as the United Nations puts it: “The window is closing rapidly, despite available solutions. It is now urgent that countries step up climate action.”

So what is being done? A lot. Then we shift into reverse. Followed by a bit more action. This is a pattern that shows just how stuck our governing structures have become.

Let’s start with “a lot.”

“Since last Earth Day 2021, the Biden Administration has turbocharged the American offshore wind industry, jump started our electric transportation future, helped weatherize homes to save families money, enlisted nature in the fight against climate change, and more – all while advancing environmental justice and creating good-paying, union jobs,” The White House reported this week. “The National Climate Task Force microsite has been updated to reflect these Administration accomplishments and continued climate action.”

The White House list of actions include:

  • Reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 50-52 percent below 2005 levels in 2030;
  • Reaching 100 percent carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035;
  • Achieving a net-zero emissions economy by 2050;
  • And delivering 40 percent of the benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.

A lot. But the larger picture is more complex: Action. A shift into reverse, and then more action.

This week is a great example. The Interior Department announced new rules for oil and gas leasing on federal lands. The announcement reduces the number of oil and gas leases by 80 percent and it increases the federal royalty to 18.75 percent (up from 12.5 percent).

“How we manage our public lands and waters says everything about what we value as a nation. For too long, the federal oil and gas leasing programs have prioritized the wants of extractive industries above local communities, the natural environment, the impact on our air and water, the needs of Tribal Nations, and, moreover, other uses of our shared public lands,” said Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo. “Today, we begin to reset how and what we consider to be the highest and best use of Americans’ resources for the benefit of all current and future generations.”

And the reaction from that “reset” is predictable.

Related: ICT special report: ‘At the Crossroads’

Oil and gas advocates call for more oil and gas development. Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, told television station KFYR: “It’s one step forward and four steps backwards in terms of their real desire to increase production of energy in the country via using federal leases, which we all know, is very important to energy production.”

North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer, a Republican, went further. He told the station that federal agencies are “working to choke off funding and regulate fossil fuels out of existence. Just look at the announcement itself: far less acreage is up for auction and the royalty rate is hiked. Now they need to approve all applications for permits to drill, providing jobs for America’s workers and creating American energy.”

But many environmentalists took the same set of facts and reached a different conclusion. A news release from the Sierra Club said the oil and gas leases broke President Joe Biden’s promise to voters because it locks in extraction.

“The communities most at risk from new fossil fuel extraction are primarily Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples, people of the global majority and those on the frontlines of fossil fuel industry expansion,” the Sierra Club said. “These are the same communities that turned out in record numbers to get Biden elected in 2020 and who have since been urging Biden to use his executive authority to fulfill his campaign promise and ban new federal fossil fuel projects.”

“Despite its pause on new oil and gas leasing and drilling on publicly owned lands and waters, the Biden administration approved more drilling permits in 2021 than President Trump did in the first year of his presidency, according to federal data analyzed by the Center for Biological Diversity. That includes substantial profits for the oil and gas industry.

Related:
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Climate change, Indigenous community and ESG

Either. Or. And then there is history. The administration’s attempt at a total reversal of oil and gas leasing was blocked by a federal court in Louisiana. That court sided with 13 states in an injunction that said that Congress, not the administration, set the rules for development. Judge Terry Doughty of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana said the states would suffer injury from the pause on new oil and gas leases because “millions and possibly billions of dollars are at stake.”

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visits the Grand Junction Air Center Complex on Friday to discuss her agency's response to wildfires and the Bureau of Land Management headquarters move to Grand Junction on Friday, July 23, 2021, in Grand Junction, Colo. (McKenzie Lange/The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel via AP)

The Interior Department used its rulemaking powers to scale back development.

“Today’s action by the Department of Interior is critical in reducing fossil fuel expansion and keeping us on track to achieve climate justice targets in the U.S.,” said Jade Begay, director of Climate Justice at NDN Collective and member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council in a news release. “We must carry this win forward to remain steadfast in our work to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and we must also turn our attention to reforming offshore oil and gas leasing. It is clear that the Department of Interior has been paying attention to the need for making decarbonization more accessible to Native and Indigenous homes, communities, and Tribal Nations, and we need that accessibility to extend even further.”

In an interview with High Country News, Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning put into context that very shift. “The president has asked us to pivot our economy to a clean energy future,” she said. “And that transition, although we all want it to happen overnight, isn’t going to happen overnight. We have to be really, really smart about the choices we make on how we power this country, and efficiently, effectively, and quickly transition to clean energy. Our job (at the BLM) is to make that shift and use the processes that are in place, the laws that are given to us by Congress, to help guide that transition.”One more for the books: The pipelines

On Tuesday the White House Council on Environmental Quality announced a restoration of regulations that say federal agencies must evaluate all relevant environmental impacts, including climate change. This reverses a Trump era rule.

“Restoring these basic community safeguards will provide regulatory certainty, reduce conflict, and help ensure that projects get built right the first time,” said Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House council. “Patching these holes in the environmental review process will help projects get built faster, be more resilient, and provide greater benefits– to people who live nearby.”

Biden_Climate_Justice_22049127331965

Once again the reaction from oil and gas producers was a stark contrast.

The American Petroleum Institute said the regulations will slow the permitting process for critical energy infrastructure dramatically and create new obstacles not only for natural gas and oil development but also for new technologies such as Carbon Capture or hydrogen infrastructure as well as “potentially even the construction of wind, solar and electricity transmission projects.”

The flip side: “These core NEPA regulations are essential to Tribal citizens like me,” said Lisa DeVille, of Mandaree, North Dakota and secretary of Dakota Resource Council and Vice President of Fort Berthold Protector of Water and Earth Rights. “Throughout the history of this nation, the needs, safety, and health of Indigenous peoples have been ignored. The changes in NEPA’s Phase 1 are a step in the right direction. I urge the Biden Administration to take even stronger steps in Phase 2 to address environmental justice issues, including climate change, and support of community and third-party monitoring.”

Not to mention the thousands of people facing prosecution for their objection to pipelines, permanent infrastructure designed to increase the volume of fossil fuel production and consumption.

And there continues to be a divide between what companies say … and what they finance. Dozens of banks continue to loan money to Enbridge and other pipeline ventures or to use those funds to support law enforcement restrictions against the protest of a private infrastructure project.

As Stop the Money Pipeline points out, “If built, Line 3 would release as much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere as fifty new coal-fired power plants.”

Then again, the greater divide.

“We hate to say we told you so,” said a letter from several state attorneys general to the president. … “There is little capacity in existing pipelines, leaving you with few (if any) viable options. The oil you now want to import from Canada is the same oil that would have flowed through the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have transported nearly a million barrels per day — not only from Canada but from the Bakken oilfields in Montana and North Dakota — to American refineries. The hypocrisy would be stunning if it weren’t so insulting to American energy workers and those in rural communities who benefited from the pipeline’s many economic opportunities.”

Watch: Water governance in era of climate change

The climate crisis is a water crisis

On this Earth Day there is another image to consider: The Colorado River.

“Many people in the United States have imagined climate change as a problem in the future,” says American Rivers, in its annual assessment, America’s Most Endangered Rivers. “But it is here now, and the primary way that each of us is experiencing climate change is through water. The climate crisis is a water crisis.”

And Indigenous people have multiple vantage points, starting with a 10,000 year history of droughts. Even a century ago geographer John Wesley Powell called for a governing structure based on water drainage instead of lines on a map.

Daryl Vigil, water administrator at Jicarilla Apache Nation, said on the ICT Newscast this week that Indigenous voices are critical to that discussion.

“We understand those were the values a hundred years ago,” he said. “We need the inclusion of voices that have been missing from this conversation.”

It’s time for parity, a sovereign level equal to states, so that decisions about water and climate are both broad and inclusive. It’s essential that tribes be included in the policy and governance.

So if the United States government, the states, and even tribal nations, are divided on this Earth Day, what can be done?

Once again. A lot. And not nearly enough.

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